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Bo Dollis

Jan. 14, 1944 - Jan. 20, 2015

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Bo Dollis, a skilled vocalist and costume maker, led the Mardi Gras Indian tribe the Wild Magnolias for more than four decades and took the tradition far beyond its New Orleans origins, photograph by J Nash Porter, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bo Dollis, photograph by Derek S. Bridges, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bo Dollis, photograph by Christopher Porche West, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bo Dollis, St. Joseph's Night, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1993, photograph by Michael P. Smith
Bo Dollis, Big Chief, Wild Magnolias, Mardi Gras day, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1985 photograph by Michael P. Smith
Bo Dollis, Big Chief, Wild Magnolias, Mardi Gras day, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1985 photograph by Michael P. Smith
Bo Dollis, Big Chief, Wild Magnolias, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1984,  Photograph by Michael P. Smith
Bo Dollis, Big Chief, Wild Magnolias, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1989, photograph by Michael P. Smith

While growing up in New Orleans’ Central City section, Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis became interested in the city’s Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which is believed to have begun in the late 19th century. Members of tribes, organized along neighborhood lines, take as long as a year to create elaborate costumes to wear during Mardi Gras, a practice known as “masking Indian.” They also parade while singing and chanting on St. Joseph’s Day in March and on Super Sunday, the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day. In the early days of the tradition, the tribes sometimes engaged in physical combat, but now the rivalry is ritualistic.

Dollis secretly attended Sunday night practice sessions in a friend’s back yard and followed the White Eagles tribe, playing and singing the traditional repertoire. In 1957, he created his first costume, working at someone else’s house to hide the activity from parents, and told them he was going to a parade. His father, however, recognized his son beneath a crown of feathers as he paraded with the Golden Arrows tribe.

In 1964, Dollis became chief of the Wild Magnolias, a tribe that takes its name from Magnolia Street in the Uptown/Mid-City area. He gained renown for his artistry in creating beautiful, elaborately beaded costumes and for his vocal prowess. In 1970, he and his tribe performed at the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival along with Golden Eagles Chief Monk Boudreaux. Dollis and the Magnolias continued to appear at Jazz Fest and at venues and events in the United States, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall in New York City, and around the world. The have also recorded extensively, merging the Indian sound with New Orleans rhythm and blues and working with such Crescent City musicians as Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, Willie Tee and Dr. John.

Despite health problems and Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on New Orleans, Dollis opened Handa Wanda’s. The neighborhood club, named for an Indian chant, has become a focal point for Indian culture. He turned active leadership of the Magnolias over to his son Gerard, known as “Little Bo.”

Bibliography
Sinclair, John and Bill Taylor. “Wild Indians Down in New Orleans: An Interview with Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias.” Blues Access. 43 (Fall 2000).
Smith, Michael P. Mardi Gras Indians. (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1994.)

Discography
The Wild Magnolias. They Call Us Wild. Sunny Side Records, 2007, UPC 016728306829. This CD also includes the Magnolias’ first album, The Wild Magnolias, originally released on the Polydor label in 1974, and bonus material.
____________. Get on Down. 2011.
____________. Life Is a Carnival. Blue Note Records 1999.

Watch

Bo Dollis Jr. and Bo Dollis Sr. and the Wild Magnolias, 2010 New Orleans Jazz Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana, May 2, 2010, video, courtesy Bo Dollis Sr. and Bo Dollis Jr.

Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, video, French Quarter Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 8, 2011, video, courtesy Bo Dollis


Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.) and the Wild Magnolias, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.) interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.) interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Bo Dollis and The Wild Magnolias, 'Handa Wanda,' 30 Years.. And Still Wild! Aim Records, 2002

Bo Dollis talks with Nicholas R. Spitzer about the secret language of the Mardi Gras Indians, courtesy American Routes® radio broadcast series, distributed by PRX

Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.), talks about how his father became Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias and discusses the tribe's history and costumes, telephone interview by Alan Govenar, July 5, 2011

Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.), answers the question 'How did you become involved with the Mardi Gras Indians?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, July 5, 2011

Bo Dollis' son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.), talks about the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians, telephone interview by Alan Govenar, July 5, 2011

Bo Dollis's son Gerard Dollis (Bo Dollis Jr.), answers the question 'What does the Mardi Gras Indian tradition mean to you and your family?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, July 5, 2011